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Dim Sum: The Ultimate Guide

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What is Dim Sum?

dim sum
Dining in a Dim Sum Restaurant

Dim Sum is a Chinese cuisine collection that consists a range of tiny, bite-sized dishes that are usually served with tea. Dim Sum, originated in Guangdong (Canton) and Hong Kong, is frequently served for brunch or lunch in Chinese restaurants. “Dim Sum” means “touch the heart” or “heart’s delight” in Cantonese, which reflects the idea that these bite-sized meals are intended to please and satiate the palate.

Dim Sum include a wide selection of dishes, both savory and sweet. Let’s learn the basics about the most commonly seen dim sum dishes:

Dumplings: Dim Sum dumplings come in various forms, such as siu mai (open-topped dumplings with ground pork or shrimp), har gow (translucent shrimp dumplings), and potstickers.

gon jing siu mai
Gon Jing Siu Mai

Buns: Steamed or baked buns filled with ingredients like barbecued pork (char siu bao), custard, or red bean paste.

char siu bao
Char Siu Bao

Rice Rolls: Thin sheets of rice noodle filled with ingredients like shrimp or barbecue pork and served with soy sauce.

Egg Rice Roll
Egg Rice Roll

Spring Rolls: Crispy or soft spring rolls filled with vegetables, shrimp, or pork.

pork spring roll
Pork Spring Roll

Sticky Rice: Glutinous rice parcels wrapped in lotus leaves and filled with a variety of ingredients like mushrooms, sausage, and chicken.

dim sum sticky rice
Dim Sum Sticky Rice

Pancakes: Savory pancakes filled with items like scallions (scallion pancakes) or minced meat.

Salty Pancake
Salty Pancake

Tripe and Offal: For those who enjoy more adventurous eating, dim sum menus often include dishes made from tripe, liver, and other organ meats.

Scallion Beef Louver
Scallion Beef Louver

Dim Sum Historical Facts

Ancient China Street and Restaurant
Ancient China Street and Restaurant

The origin of Dim Sum are rooted in Chinese history, and its development over the centuries has been influenced by various cultural, social, and economic factors.

The exact origin of Dim Sum is somewhat debated, but it is generally believed to have begun in the teahouses along the ancient Silk Road in China. These teahouses served as rest stops for weary travelers and traders, offering not only tea but also small, savory snacks to accompany it. Over time, these snacks became more diverse and elaborate, evolving into the Dim Sum we know today.

Here are 5 key points in the historical development of Dim Sum:

  1. Teahouse Beginnings: The practice of serving tea and small snacks likely dates back to the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). It was during this time that teahouses became popular gathering places for people to relax, socialize, and enjoy tea and snacks.
    ancient style tea house
    Ancient Style Tea House
  2. Migration to Canton (Guangdong): Dim Sum as we know it today is often associated with the Cantonese region of China, particularly the city of Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton). It was in Canton that Dim Sum underwent significant refinement and specialization, becoming an integral part of Cantonese cuisine.
    Ancient Guangdong
    Ancient Guangdong Draw by Xiaoyou Z.
  3. Imperial Influence: During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, Dim Sum gained further popularity and sophistication. It became a staple of Chinese culinary culture and was even served in the imperial courts.
    imperial court dim sum
    Dim Sum Served in Imperial Court
  4. Regional Variations: Dim Sum has regional variations across China. For example, in the north, steamed buns (baozi) and stuffed dumplings (jiaozi) are more common, while in the south, items like shrimp dumplings (har gow) and barbecue pork buns (char siu bao) are popular.
  5. Spread to the West: Dim Sum’s popularity spread beyond China’s borders. Chinese immigrants brought Dim Sum traditions with them to various parts of the world, including United States, Canada, and Chinese communities in other countries. Today, Dim Sum is enjoyed in Chinese restaurants worldwide.
    Oldest Dim Sum Restaurant in the U.S
    Oldest Dim Sum Restaurant in the U.S

Dim Sum has become a cherished culinary tradition, not only in China but also internationally. It’s not just about the food; it’s also about the communal experience of sharing small dishes and enjoying tea with friends and family. While its exact origins may be debated, Dim Sum’s history is a testament to the rich culinary heritage of China.

Dim Sum Across Regions

We have gained the idea that Dim Sum can be a quite different experience across regions due to weathers, local produce, and more.

In the northern regions, such as Beijing and Tianjin, Dim Sum embraces heartier flavors and ingredients that align with the colder climate. Steamed buns, known as baozi, and stuffed dumplings, or jiaozi, are more prevalent here. These dumplings are often filled with robust ingredients like ground pork, chives, and cabbage, providing warmth and sustenance during the harsh northern winters. The act of making and enjoying these dumplings is also a cherished family activity during the Lunar New Year festivities, symbolizing unity and good fortune.

tianjing baozi
Tianjin Baozi

As Dim Sum made its way to other regions of China, it continued to adapt and evolve. In the southern province of Yum Cha, known for its diverse culinary traditions, Dim Sum reflects the local ingredients and flavors. Seafood-based Dim Sum items are particularly popular here, given the coastal proximity. Unique creations like phoenix talons (chicken feet) and century eggs served with ginger add a layer of local authenticity to the Dim Sum experience in this region.

Guangdong Har Gow
Guangdong Har Gow

In Hong Kong, Dim Sum is elevated to an art form, with modern interpretations of traditional favorites served in upscale restaurants with stunning harborfront views. Here, you can savor dishes like truffle-infused dumplings and exquisitely crafted dim sum creations that blend local and international influences.

luxury dim sum restaurant in HK
Luxury Dim Sum Restaurant in HK

In Taiwan, Dim Sum reflects the island’s unique culinary identity. Taiwanese Dim Sum often features local ingredients such as bamboo shoots, taro, and Taiwan’s renowned tea culture, resulting in a delightful fusion of flavors. Dishes like xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) and guabao (Taiwanese pork belly buns) have become iconic representations of Taiwanese Dim Sum.

taiwan gua bao
Taiwan Guabao

In the United States, Canada, and other Western Countries. Dim Sum has experienced a significant surge in popularity. Chinese communities in these regions have brought their culinary traditions with them, leading to the establishment of Dim Sum restaurants that cater to diverse palates. Fusion dishes and vegetarian options have become staples on many Dim Sum menus, making this beloved culinary tradition accessible and appealing to a wide range of diners.

American Dim Sum Fusion
American Dim Sum Fusion

The Cantonese Dim Sum experience is marked by its elegance and refinement, often enjoyed in grand banquet halls with families and friends gathered around large, round tables. The practice of Yum Cha, which means “drinking tea”, is central to the Dim Sum experience in Guangdong. Teapots filled with fragrant jasmine or oolong tea are contiguously replenished as diners engage in lively conversation and share a myriad of small dishes. It’s a culinary ritual that combines exquisite flavors with a sense of togetherness, making it a beloved cultural institution in Guangdong.

Guangdong Dim Sum Restaurant
Guangdong Dim Sum Restaurant

Dim Sum Restaurants Experience

A visit to a Dim Sum restaurant is not just a meal; it’s an experience rich in tradition, flavors, and communal dining. Dim Sum restaurants, often bustling and vibrant, offer a unique culinary adventure that is cherished by people around the world. Here’s what you can typically expect when you visit a Dim Sum restaurant:

Welcoming Atmosphere: Dim Sum restaurants often exude a warm and inviting ambiance. The interior decor may vary, ranging from traditional and ornate to modern and chic, but the common thread is a sense of conviviality. The sound of clinking teacups and animated conversations fills the air, creating a lively atmosphere.

Teapot Ritual: The Dim Sum experience begins with the arrival of a teapot filled with fragrant Chinese tea. This is an essential element of Yum Cha, which means “drinking tea” in Cantonese. Tea serves not only as a beverage but also as a palate cleanser between different Dim Sum dishes.

teapot ritual
Tea is delivered prior to any dishes

Trolley Service: In some Dim Sum restaurants, servers push trolleys laden with steaming bamboo baskets, metal trays, and other containers holding a variety of Dim Sum dishes. As they wheel their carts past your table, you can examine the offerings and select dishes that pique your interest. This interactive trolley service is a classic aspect of Dim Sum dining.

dim sum trolley
Dim Sum Trolley Service

Ordering Options: In addition to trolley service, some Dim Sum restaurants offer menus from which you can order specific items. This allows for a more customized dining experience, where you can choose your favorite Dim Sum dishes and have them freshly prepared. Authentic Dim Sum restaurants features a menu which is a piece of paper showing all the dishes (usually with images) that you can circle with a pencil to order.

dim sum restaurant menu example
Dim Sum Restaurant Menu Example

Diverse Selection: Dim Sum menus feature a wide array of bite-sized dishes, including dumplings, buns, rolls, noodles, and snacks. Popular items include har gow (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), char siu bao (barbecue pork buns), cheung fun (rice noodle rolls), and xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). Vegetarian options are also available.

Shared Dining: Dim Sum is a communal dining experience, encouraging sharing and trying a variety of dishes with friends and family. Dishes are typically served in small portions, allowing everyone at the table to sample a bit of everything.

dim sum shared dining experience
Dim Sum Shared Dining Experience

Symbolic Significance: Some Dim Sum dishes carry symbolic significance, often tied to Chinese culture and traditions. For example, dumplings shaped like gold ingots are associated with wealth and prosperity, while phoenix talons (chicken feet) symbolize good luck.

Gold Ingot Shaped Dumplings
Gold Ingot Shaped Dumplings

Condiments and Dipping Sauces: Dim Sum is often accompanied by an assortment of condiments and dipping sauces, such as soy sauce, chili oil, hoisin sauce, and vinegar with ginger. These condiments enhance the flavors of the dishes and allow you to customize your taste experience.

Dim Sum with Dipping Sauce
Dim Sum with Dipping Sauce

Cart Etiquette: When ordering from trolley service, servers will often mark your table’s order sheet to keep track of what you’ve selected. Each dish is typically priced differently, and your bill is calculated based on the number and type of dishes you consume.

Culinary Theatre: Dining at a Dim Sum restaurant can be likened to a culinary performance. The bustling activity of servers, the tantalizing aroma of freshly steamed dumplings, and the visual feast of dishes passing by your table on trolleys create a dynamic and engaging experience.

Leisurely Dining: Dim Sum dining is meant to be leisurely and enjoyable. It’s common for families and friends to spend extended periods at the restaurant, savoring the food and each other’s company.

Desserts and Sweets: The Dim Sum experience often concludes with a selection of desserts and sweets, such as custard tarts, red bean buns, and sesame balls. These sweet treats provide a delightful ending to the meal.

Sata Andagi
Sata Andagi

Overall, a visit to a Dim Sum restaurant is a multi-sensory journey filled with flavors, aromas, and cultural significance. It’s a celebration of culinary diversity and a testament to the joy of sharing delicious moments with loved ones. Whether you’re a seasoned Dim Sum enthusiast or trying it for the first time, the experience is sure to leave a lasting impression.

12 Dim Sum Dishes You Must Try

Dim Sum offers a delightful array of dishes, each with its unique flavors and textures. While preferences may vary, there are some must-have Dim Sum dishes that are widely beloved and considered classics. Here are 12 must-try Dim Sum dishes:

Har Gow (Shrimp Dumplings): These translucent, delicate dumplings are filled with plump, juicy shrimp and often steamed to perfection. They are known for their translucent, pleated wrappers and are a quintessential Dim Sum choice.

dim sum shrimp dumplings har gow
Dim Sum Shrimp Dumplings (Har Gow)

Siu Mai (Pork Dumplings): Siu Mai are open-topped dumplings typically filled with a mixture of ground pork, shrimp, and fragrant seasonings. They are often garnished with a small piece of fish roe or a pea, adding a burst of color and flavor.

siu mai
Siu Mai

Char Siu Bao (Barbecue Pork Buns): These fluffy, steamed buns are filled with sweet and savory barbecued pork, known as “char siu.” The combination of tender pork and slightly sweet bun is a crowd-pleaser.

char siu bao
Char Siu Bao (叉烧包)

Cheung Fun (Rice Noodle Rolls): Cheung Fun consists of delicate rice noodle sheets rolled around various fillings, such as shrimp, beef, or char siu. They are often served with a light soy-based sauce and sometimes topped with sesame seeds or green onions.

cheung fun
Cheung Fun

Egg Yolk Lava Buns: These delicate buns, also known as Liu Sha Bao or molten custard buns, are a popular dim sum item that features a soft and fluffy steamed bun filled with a creamy, rich, and sweet egg yolk custard filling that oozes out when you bite into it. These buns are a delightful combination of textures and flavors, and they are a favorite among dim sum enthusiasts.

liu sha bao
Lava Bun

Egg Tarts: These sweet, flaky pastries are filled with a smooth, custard-like egg filling. They make for a delightful dessert or a sweet ending to your Dim Sum meal.

egg tart
Egg Tart

Turnip Cake (Lo Bak Go): Made from shredded Chinese radish and rice flour, turnip cake is pan-fried until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. It’s often seasoned with bits of dried shrimp, Chinese sausage, and scallions.

Turnip Cake
Turnip Cake

Sticky Rice (Lo Mai Gai): This dish features glutinous rice steamed with a savory mixture of chicken, Chinese sausage, mushrooms, and sometimes salted egg yolk. It’s wrapped in lotus leaves, imparting a unique flavor.

Sticky Rice
Sticky Rice

Fung Jao (Chicken Feet): Known as “phoenix talons,” chicken feet are braised and marinated to create a flavorful, tender delicacy. They are often enjoyed by those who appreciate unique textures and flavors.

Dim Sum Chicken Feet Fung Jao
Fung Jao

Sesame Balls (Jian Dui): These deep-fried, chewy sesame-coated balls are often filled with sweet red bean paste, lotus seed paste, or other sweet fillings. They are both crispy and satisfyingly sweet.

Sesame Balls
Sesame Balls

Steamed Spare Ribs with Black Bean Sauce: This dish consists of tender marinated pork spare ribs steamed with fermented black bean sauce, garlic, and chili. It’s a flavorful and slightly spicy option.

Steamed Ribs with Black Bean Sauce
Steamed Ribs with Black Bean Sauce

Fried Shrimp or Spring Rolls: These crispy rolls are filled with a mixture of shrimp or vegetables and often served with a sweet and tangy dipping sauce.

Shrimp Spring Rolls
Shrimp Spring Rolls

These must-have Dim Sum dishes offer a diverse range of flavors and textures, making it an ideal meal for sharing and exploring the rich culinary traditions of Chinese cuisine. Don’t forget to pair them with a pot of fragrant Chinese tea to complete the Dim Sum experience.

Dim Sum Tea Choices

Selecting the right tea to accompany your Dim Sum meal is an essential part of the experience. Tea not only complements the flavors of Dim Sum but also aids in digestion. Traditional Chinese teas are often served with Dim Sum, and the choice of tea can enhance your dining experience. Here are some popular tea choices to consider:

Jasmine Tea: Jasmine tea is one of the most common and popular choices to accompany Dim Sum. It has a delicate floral aroma and a mild, soothing flavor that pairs well with a wide range of Dim Sum dishes. The fragrance of jasmine enhances the dining experience.

Oolong Tea: Oolong teas come in various varieties and flavors, from light and floral to dark and roasted. They have a unique flavor profile that can complement the diversity of Dim Sum offerings. Light oolongs, such as Tie Guan Yin, are a good choice to start with.

Pu-erh Tea: Pu-erh tea, particularly aged or fermented varieties, has a deep and earthy flavor. It is often enjoyed for its digestive properties, making it an excellent choice to counterbalance the richness of some Dim Sum dishes.

Green Tea: Green tea varieties, such as Longjing (Dragon Well) or Bi Luo Chun, offer a fresh and slightly grassy flavor. They are known for their antioxidant properties and are a refreshing choice to cleanse the palate between different Dim Sum dishes.

Chrysanthemum Tea: Chrysanthemum tea is a caffeine-free herbal option with a light, floral flavor. It pairs well with Dim Sum and is believed to have cooling properties, making it a good choice, especially in hot weather.

White Tea: White teas are subtle and have a delicate, sweet flavor. They are known for their lightness and refreshing qualities, making them a suitable option for pairing with Dim Sum, especially if you prefer a milder tea.

Black Tea: Black teas, such as Keemun or Dian Hong, offer a robust and malty flavor. They can stand up to the bold flavors of some Dim Sum dishes, particularly meatier or spicier options.

Herbal Teas: If you prefer caffeine-free options, herbal teas like chrysanthemum, hibiscus, or ginger tea can be enjoyable choices. Ginger tea, in particular, can aid in digestion, which can be helpful during a Dim Sum meal.

Custom Blends: Some Dim Sum restaurants offer their custom tea blends, which are carefully curated to pair perfectly with their Dim Sum menu. These blends can be unique and worth trying for a distinctive experience.

When dining at a Dim Sum restaurant, you’ll often find a pot of tea already on your table, or you can request your preferred tea from the restaurant’s tea menu. The server will refill your teapot with hot water throughout the meal, allowing you to enjoy multiple infusions from the same tea leaves. Experiment with different teas to find the ones that best complement your Dim Sum selections and personal taste preferences.

Are you ready for your first Dim Sum experience? Let me know your favorite dish in the comment. By the way, I have found some great dim sum recipes that you can follow at home and I will be sharing in my blog. Let me know which dish you’re interested to learn.

Thanks for reading and I will see you in the next post.

FAQ

Dim sum is a wide array of small dishes which are not made the same way. Some dim sum dishes do contain gluten because they are made with wheat-based wrappers, soy sauce, or other wheat-containing ingredients. Dumplings, buns, and many types of rolls and pastries are typically not gluten-free.

However, it’s possible to make gluten-free versions of many popular dim sum dishes.

The optimal way to find the best dim sum near you is to consult your Cantonese friends. Another option is to find any dim sum restaurants and check if it is busy. In most cases, busy dim sum restaurants guarantee the food quality.

Unfortunately, Google map reviews are not that accurate due to the complains about services or things that are not about the food. The dim sum restaurant I often go to has a 3-star rating while their dim sum tastes way above average.

Generally, you might want to order 3-5 dishes per person. There is an exception that few dishes are meant to be shared with more people, so ask your server if you’re not sure about the serving sizes.

You can get frozen dim sum from local dim sum restaurants. Most dim sum restaurants prepare frozen dim sum for take out and delivery.

Chinese supermarket, especially the large ones, usually carry frozen dim sum. I only recommend you to get Har Gow and Shumai as other dishes may be less tasty due to the frozen process.

Note that frozen dim sum needs to be steamed to serve.

The best way to reheat dim sum is steaming. You can set a bamboo steamer, or a metal one, over a pot of boiling water.

The average price per dim sum dish is about 6 USD, and around 24 USD per person in North America. 

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About the Author

Hello, I’m Lilith Wong. Welcome to my blog where I share authentic Chinese food and drink recipes.

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